Distant Relations

Maintaining relationships with friends and loved ones who live far away can be challenging. But you can bridge the gap — and perhaps become closer than ever.


Expert Source: Andrea Bonior, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist, adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University, and author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends.

At your weekly coffee date with your best friend, she shares the news that she and her family are moving across the country for a new job. And your heart sinks a little.

You knew this was a possibility, and you’re excited for your friend’s new opportunities. But you’re also sad and nervous about what this will mean for your longtime friendship.

Now that you’ll no longer share the landscape, images, and routines of daily life, how will you stay connected? Will it be satisfying enough to stay “friends” on Facebook or exchange emails now and then? How often should you be in touch? How can you keep your conversations meaningful?

There are real challenges and uncertain-ties of long-distance friendships, but there are opportunities, too.

According to clinical psychologist and author Andrea Bonior, PhD, you can allow physical distance to spark a rich and exciting phase in your relationships by finding creative ways to share memorable moments and by improvising new styles of connection.

Challenges to Overcome

  • Being out of the daily loop. “When you’re no longer living in the same sphere as your friends, it can be hard to envision or understand their daily life,” Bonior says. “Losing proximity can mean you lose shared rhythms and reference points.”
  • Loss of group identity. Friendships formed within the context of a larger group — the office crew, a new moms club, a sports team — may feel tenuous once a close friend leaves the circle. Do you have enough in common to sustain a friendship outside of that social structure? “They’ve left the group that helped define your relationship,” Bonior says. “So what happens to the relationship now?”
  • Temptation to give up. With your lives physically separated and the inevitable challenges of staying in touch, you may feel that relationship is likely doomed, so why keep trying?
  • Method mismatch. Now that your most convenient method for staying in touch will be phone, text, email, social media, or some other medium, you’re facing a potential communication gap, says Bonior. What if you’re an avid texter, but your friend really needs to hear your voice? Perhaps your aunt loves Facebook but you’re not comfortable with social media.
  • Travel hassles. “You can’t get together spontaneously anymore,” says Bonior, “and now every face-to-face meeting has to be planned and arranged months in advance.” Even fun travel can be stressful, and expenses add up quickly, creating another layer of anxiety.
  • Planning problems. It may feel like every call or Skype session has to be booked in advance, too. For those who don’t like to plan beyond tomorrow, that can be a disheartening obstacle. It may also put pressure on you both to make each encounter substantive.
  • Commitment disconnects. Reaching out too often may make you seem clingy. But being in touch too rarely may make you seem aloof. “Relationships are almost never completely equal in terms of effort,” says Bonior. “Usually, even when they lived close, one member of the pair did more to stay in touch than the other.”

Strategies for Success

  • Accept that change is inevitable. Bonior reminds us that all relationships, geographically challenged or not, go through changes — and some do fade. Don’t approach staying in touch as a way to freeze your relationship in time. The distance between you actually presents an opportunity to freshen your relationship with new experiences and shared rituals.
  • Trust the memory bond. Friendships are nourished by face-to-face contact, Bonior notes, but they have staying power because of the memories you share. “Close friendship is almost like a shared language,” she says. “If you have a friend with whom you’ve been close for many years, you still have shared jokes, memories, and so on that are very strong and special.”
  • Make a plan. “Don’t get stuck in the ‘let’s talk sometime’ trap,” Bonior says. A little creative planning can give your friendship an element of regularity and predictability. Let planning be a fun — and collaborative — endeavor. Will it be Skype on Tuesdays? Or maybe you have a shared monthly “movie night” when you watch the same film at the same time, texting your reactions, or even sharing them by phone?
  • Be spontaneous. Your separate experiences can be gifts to each other as you share them in unpredictable ways and moments. A call, text, or email on impulse, especially to share a new adventure or odd experience, will keep the relationship feeling current.
  • Make it meaningful. “Today, the techniques for staying in touch are pretty available and easy,” says Bonior. “Everybody can look at a Facebook entry or send an email or share an image of themselves on Instagram. What’s more challenging is making the contact really mean something.” Make sure that at least some of your touchpoints go deeper than a status update.
  • Send packages and cards. “It’s so rare to get something physical in the mail these days,” Bonior says. “A care package or a simple postcard can be a really strong connector.” The package doesn’t need to be jammed with pricey gifts. Consider inexpensive trinkets that are meaningful to both of you: A bar napkin from a favorite watering hole, a new book by a favorite author, or a funny postcard can make a real difference.
  • Visit in person. “You’ll probably feel like you don’t have the time,” Bonior says, but it will do wonders for your relationship if you can get together once a year or so. Plan a girls’ weekend getaway or a man-cave retreat at a halfway spot. Or take advantage of business trips and other journeys that bring you close to your friend, and sneak away for some serious face time.

Jon Spayde is an Experience Life contributing editor.

Illustration by Rocco Baviera

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